After a long hiatus, Cowgirl Creamery’s beloved cottage cheese is back. The plump, tender curds bathe in a thick and tangy dressing—ready to dollop on peaches for breakfast or top with cherry tomatoes for lunch. If you think of cottage cheese as grandma food, or grim diet food, prepare for a revelation.
When I was growing up, a tub of cottage cheese was always in the fridge. If the bathroom scale told my mother that her weight was up by a pound, she sentenced herself to a week of cottage cheese for lunch. It was bland, dry and grainy, and I suppose it worked as a diet plan because you didn’t want much of it.
Eating Cowgirl Creamery’s Clabbered Cottage Cheese seems more like an indulgence than a penance. Produced with organic skim milk cultured slowly overnight, with no assist from rennet, it requires almost 18 hours to make—an eternity compared to the process at industrial creameries. The leisurely pace allows for more lactic-acid development, imparting that cheesecake-like tang that’s so refreshing.
“When you walk into the creamery in the morning, you can smell the acidity in the air,” says cheesemaker Maureen Cunnie. “It’s a really vibrant smell, the smell of the culture, and it makes me so happy.”
Cowgirl discontinued the cottage cheese in late 2012, says Cunnie, because the process required too much water—an allocated resource in California's Point Reyes Station, where the creamery was located at the time. Last year, Cowgirl moved most of its cheese production into a new and larger facility in Petaluma, with more access to water and more water-efficient equipment.
The curd has to be stirred constantly as it warms in the vat, a process that can take a couple of hours. A mechanical agitator keeps the curds moving, but Cunnie stands by as trouble shooter to prevent the curds from shattering, clumping or scorching on the bottom or sides of the vat. “Cottage cheese is my favorite to make because it is so challenging,” says the cheesemaker. “You have to be completely focused. It takes all your senses to make a good vat.”
After the whey is drained and the curds are rinsed, they’re cloaked in a dressing of crème fraiche, cultured milk and salt. That’s the clabber, an old-fashioned word for cultured cream.
For a dairy product that doesn’t get much respect, cottage cheese can have a lot going on. “I’m looking for acidity and salt balance,” says Cunnie. “And I look for a smooth texture—no grit or fines. I don’t like it when it has too much dressing and becomes cloying. I’m looking for freshness, and sweetness to balance the tang. To me, other brands can taste sour and flat, and sometimes watery. I don’t want ours to be too runny.”
Take a look at the ingredient label on other brands of cottage cheese and you’ll probably find stabilizers like carrageenan or locust bean gum and emulsifiers like tricalcium phosphate. Those additives aren’t harmful, but who needs them? Cowgirl Creamery’s label lists only nonfat milk, crème fraiche, culture and salt.
If you like cottage cheese, you know how to use it. I tend to take it in a savory direction with sliced radishes, cucumbers, chopped herbs and black pepper. But it also makes an easy, high-protein breakfast with fresh fruit and honey. On a weekend, treat yourself to Cottage Cheese Pancakes from The Pancake Handbook by Stephen Siegelman, Sue Conley (co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery) and Bette Kroening.
Distribution will grow, but for now, look for Cowgirl Creamery Clabbered Cottage Cheese at these locations.